American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

July 18, 2009

american-wife I first heard of American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld from scanning the New York Times Best-Seller List every week. This 2008 novel, Sittenfeld’s third, made the list as a hardcover, and is currently 5th in the Paperback Trade Fiction category. I didn’t hear any buzz about the book at all, though, because I try to stay away from reviews and publicity tours, so I didn’t know what to expect — besides a story of a modern-day American first lady. Later, when I found out that the novel was based in great part on Laura Bush, I felt a bit disgusted by the whole thing, especially since Sittenfeld seems to exploit Bush’s real-life tragedy so completely.

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): American Wife is the autobiography of Alice “Lindy” Blackwell, who, when the novel opens, is first lady of the United States. The narrative immediately flashes back to Alice’s childhood, and chronicles several events that will end up having a lasting impact on Alice’s life well into her sixties. It is in childhood in Riley, WI that Alice meets Andrew Imhof, an elementary school classmate who would eventually develop into the object of a major crush by high school. Just when Alice and Andrew somewhat acknowledge their feelings for each other and are scheduled to meet up at a party, tragedy strikes. Alice and Andrew are involved in a car accident in separate vehicles: Alice blew through a stop sign at an intersection, hitting Andrew’s car head-on and killing him instantly.

Alice never quite recovers from the effects of this accident. She is overwhelmed by guilt to such a degree that she ends up sleeping with Andrew’s brother Peter in an attempt to assuage her feelings. This leads to an unwanted pregnancy and abortion — performed, of all people, by Alice’s grandmother’s lesbian lover in Chicago. Alice only tells Dena, her best friend, about the abortion, while hiding the truth from her parents. Fortunately, Alice is able to bounce back and get her life back together. She goes on to the University of Wisconsin, and after graduating, becomes first an elementary school teacher and then a librarian.

It is during this period in her life when Alice meets Charlie Blackwell, the youngest son of a wealthy, powerful Wisconsin family. Charlie has a vague job at the Blackwell family business, and has political aspirations as well. He and Alice immediately hit it off, and become engaged a mere three months after starting to date. Alice has some reservations about fitting in with the Kennedy-like Blackwell clan, but she’s so enamored of Charlie that she’s willing to try anything.

From there the novel records Alice’s relationship with Charlie, which becomes increasingly strained as he overindulges in alcohol and struggles to find his way in life. Eventually, Charlie becomes part-owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, governor of Wisconsin, and finally, improbably, president of the United States. Readers get Alice’s take on everything, as she stays with Charlie despite their problems, tries to deal with her new role as first lady, and always, always thinks of Andrew Imhof and what might have been.

Liked:

  • This was my first Sittenfeld novel, and I think she (yes, this particular “Curtis” is a she) is a terrific storyteller. American Wife is a long novel, but it was a very engrossing read — until the end where Sittenfeld’s political beliefs overpower the story itself.
  • Alice was a very likable character, which of course is critical to a work of this length. She doesn’t actually do much in the story and is more of a passive lead who reacts to everything around her, but since that’s pretty much how I go through life myself, it worked for me.
  • The little insights into White House goings on and so forth were interesting. Usually the focus is on the president, so it was nice to get a look at what happens to the first lady for a change.
  • I liked how the book read as something of an autobiography, detailing Alice’s life from the time she was a young girl to a time when she had to use anti-wrinkle cream before bed. That gave readers a much more complete picture of the character, and made the story far more interesting than if we were just treated to the White House years.

Disliked:

  • When I learned that Laura Bush was the basis of the Alice character, I felt a bit creeped out. I don’t care for politics at all, so I knew very little of Laura’s life before starting this book. But the more I read about Laura, the more I felt like a voyeur for reading American Wife — and absolutely not in a good way. I found it exceedingly distasteful that Sittenfeld would play on the car accident tragedy like she did. That sort of thing shouldn’t be for public consumption.
  • Sittenfeld didn’t try to hide the fact that she was basing the Blackwells on the Bushes, did she? There were so many commonalities that it became a distraction while reading because I was constantly wondering what was true and what wasn’t. Plus, why would Sittenfeld change some details (Milwaukee Brewers instead of Texas Rangers, Wisconsin instead of Texas, etc.) and not others (terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, followed an adulterous Democrat into the White House, etc.)? That was bothersome as well.
  • I wasn’t fond of the non-ending, either. I was hoping to see some definite growth on Alice’s part, but felt that she essentially stayed the same throughout the entire novel. She became a bit more tolerant of Charlie over the years (which would happen in any marriage), but that was about it. Sure, she defied him by talking to the protester, but she knew the White House would spin the story and distort the details anyway. That was hardly a significant risk.

Rating:
Despite the underlying skeeviness of Sittenfeld basing these characters on Laura and George Bush, I found American Wife to be a page-turner for at least 80% of the novel. If you like character-driven books, then this one will likely appeal to you. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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